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Football Thriller Propels Cougars Into Second Round
It was the most improbable finish to the most unusual game of the season for Escalon's varsity Cougars ... and when it was over, even head coach Mark Loureiro was left shaking his head as his team celebrated a last minute win.

"It's hard to imagine you're 11-0 and feel like Cinderella," Loureiro told his team in the post-game huddle, as they survived against a determined Calaveras team, escaping with a 35-31 win in the first round playoff game. "You put the ball down and they get it five times, on two of our touchdowns, you run the wrong route ... even I don't know how you won."

Escalon, coming into the playoffs on a high note after going undefeated through the preseason and the Trans-Valley League campaign, took the TVL title and were 10-0 as they hit the field against the Redskins on Friday night. It took a final desperation pass from Spencer Franceschetti to Danny Thompson in the final 30 seconds of the game - listed in Loureiro's scorebook as an 82-yard hookup - to secure the victory.

But things didn't look good early, as the visitors made the most of every opportunity, taking a 17-0 lead before the Cougars even got on the board.

Escalon kicked off and stopped the Redskins on their first possession, but the Cougars fumbled on their first series and the Calaveras defense scooped up the ball, running it in from 51 yards out for the early score. They added the extra point and went up 7-0 with 10:11 to play in the first quarter.

The teams traded the next couple of possessions, with Escalon not able to get much going other than solid returns on the Calaveras punts by Thompson, who also figured huge in the outcome of the contest later on.

Nursing the 7-0 lead into the second quarter, Calaveras forced another fumble on an Escalon possession and this time ran it in from 23 yards out, adding the kick for a 14-0 lead with 10:32 to go in the second.

Another trade of possessions and Escalon was near midfield when another fumble occurred, the Redskins pouncing on the ball and parlaying that a couple of plays later into a 32-yard field goal for a 17-0 lead.

The huge Escalon crowd was silenced as their team was looking at the potential of their season ending. With less than three minutes to go in the half, the Cougars got some life, Izzy Ruiz getting the call and carrying the ball multiple times as he charged ahead a few yards at a time to get the needed first down conversions. Franceschetti also had a quarterback keeper and scrambled for a first down along the way.

Ruiz went up and over the defense for a touchdown with just under 50 seconds remaining in the half, officially going in from a yard out. Jason Diniz added the point after so the Cougars were on the board, trailing 17-7.

Thompson broke up a deep pass by the Redskins on their ensuing possession, possibly saving a fourth first half score by the visitors.

Escalon went in down by 10 at the half, but made some adjustments and knew they would get the ball coming out of the locker room.

"We told them we had to score on the first drive, we had to re-establish confidence," Loureiro said.

The offense, he added, had to hang on to the ball more as well, since their miscues forced the Cougar defensive unit to be on the field for most of the first half.

"At 17-0, it didn't look good," Loureiro admitted of seeing his team fall behind.

Coming out determined in the second half, however, the Cougars took the kickoff and Diniz had a nice return, making it all the way to the 41-yard line. A couple of plays later, the Cougars hit paydirt, as Franceschetti and Diniz linked up from 11 yards out for the touchdown. Diniz added the point after and it was 17-14, with the Cougars giving the crowd something to cheer about as the air turned colder and dampness settled in.

As the weather cooled, the Cougars heated up, swarming Calaveras on the ensuing kickoff and holding them in check, forcing a punt with 8:06 to go in the third. On its next series, the Cougar got a first down run by Tyler Ellisen and a huge first down catch by Blake Nayer, pulling it down while sandwiched by a pair of defenders. Then it was Thompson's turn, pulling in a 19-yard touchdown reception from Franceschetti with 4:44 to go in the quarter. With the kick after by Diniz, the Cougars had come all the way back, taking the lead at 21-17.

After one first down on their next possession, Calaveras had to punt, putting Escalon deep in their own territory. After a holding penalty, the Cougars were even deeper, but Franceschetti found Nayer on a 75-yard touchdown throw and the kick was good, putting Escalon in the driver's seat at 28-17 as time ran out in the third quarter.

"We're up 28-17, looking to run the clock out, back in control," Loureiro said of the feeling between the third and fourth quarters.

Calaveras, however, had other ideas and were not about to sit back and watch their season end without a fight.

They got closer midway through the fourth quarter, grabbing yet another Cougar fumble and using that as a springboard, scoring on a 4-yard run to make it 28-23 and they tried for the 2-point conversion but failed, the pass batted away by Ruiz, leaving the Redskins trailing by 5 points with 5:41 to play.

An onside kick by Calaveras was recovered by Escalon, putting them at midfield. Carries by Ellisen and Ruiz got the Cougars closer to the goal line and kept the clock moving but a fumble on a third and 5 was recovered by the Redskins and with 3:06 to play, they had the ball and the momentum.

They made progress, but were stopped on a third and 8 with 1:15 to play. At the 10-yard line, there was nothing to do but take a timeout and figure how best to get the first down and another series. On what looked like it was going to be a quarterback keeper, Nick Baatrup instead sent a shovel pass to Jake Mote, who scored from 10 yards out to give Calaveras the lead, 29-28. They went for two and this time made it, going up by a 31-28 margin with 50.2 seconds to play.

After 10 wins, hundreds of plays, a season of ups and downs, it came down to the final minute.

A short return by Diniz on the kickoff was followed by a nice run by Diniz that was negated on a holding call. An incomplete pass followed and the Cougars were looking at a second and 15 with just 25.8 seconds left in their season.

It was then that Franceschetti took the snap, rolled to his right, surveyed the field and saw Thompson a step ahead of his defender on the left sideline. Franceschetti put it up, Thompson pulled it in and took off, not looking back until he broke into the end zone for the touchdown as the crowd stood and roared and the sideline erupted into cries of joy and a little bit of disbelief as the scoreboard read Cougars 34, Visitors 31.

"I thought this could be the last time I'm going to wear the purple and gold," Thompson, a senior, said of the thoughts racing through his mind as he watched the Franceschetti pass arc into his waiting hands. "I thought 'don't look back, just keep running' and I kept going, it was now or never."

Admitting he could hear footsteps behind him, Thompson said he just kept pushing forward until he was in the end zone.

"I was a little bit winded but the first thing was, I was looking for no yellow hankies," he said, noting he was holding his breath until he surveyed the field and saw no penalty flags behind him on the field. "It was indescribable joy, I was gassed at the end but I didn't care if it was 200 yards, I was going to go as fast as I could."

His fastest was good enough, and with the extra point by Diniz, the Cougar faithful shared in the excitement of the come-from-behind win, taking the 35-31 lead.

But there were still a few ticks of the clock and the defense was back on the field, with Calaveras having time enough for two pass attempts before the clock ran out. The first fell incomplete, the final pass of the night was picked off by Nayer, who turned and ran it upfield as the gun sounded, ending the game.

"It was exciting, very emotional," Nayer said of the win.

Franceschetti, who threw four touchdown passes on the night, admitted his team was overmatched at the beginning.

"They really came out strong," he said of Calaveras, adding that the Cougars found some resolve in the locker room at halftime, refusing to believe the season would end that night.

"This game's not over," Franceschetti said of the mindset they came out with in the second half. "This team's got a lot of heart."

The night was frustrating for Charlie McDonald, who was stymied by the Redskins defense and was not effective running the ball. But he relished in his team's win.

"This is absolutely amazing," he said.

"A miracle, people looking over us," teammate Mike Gutierrez added. "I think we came out soft, but this whole season we've been able to come back, get the big play at the right time."

Diniz was amazed they survived six fumbles.

"I was praying, I was crying, too," he admitted of the final last gasp play that led to the win. "Everyone was emotional, it's indescribable, the ups and downs."

Thompson gave credit to the Redskins for giving the Cougars all they could handle.

"They're definitely a tough ball club, tough boys," Thompson said.

Defensive leaders Nick Largent and Thomas Martin were exhausted but elated.

"It goes back to Buhach Colony, how much we were on the field then," Largent said of the defense able to hold up through the contest, drawing from a preseason game experience. "I expected a dogfight, I expected them to come right at us."

Martin said the team was frustrated with their first half offensive effort and turned it up for the second half, adding that they knew they had to step it up and play together as team to come away with a victory.

Escalon had 432 total yards to 249 for Calaveras, with Franceschetti completing 8-of-13 pass attempts for 226 yards and four touchdowns. The Cougars had 34 rushing plays for 206 yards, paced by Ruiz with 18 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown. Thompson had two touchdown receptions, 19 yards and 82 yards, Nayer added two big catches, one for a first down and another for a touchdown, while also picking off the final pass of the game. Franceschetti also had two runs for 34 yards.

"When the big plays had to be made down the stretch, he made it," Loureiro said of his junior signal caller, who combined with 'DT' for the game-winning drive. "Danny Thompson had that beautiful touchdown catch, that was a magical moment ... Danny Thompson willed us to win that game."

Leading the way defensively were Largent, who had 13 tackles, Ruiz 11, and Martin had 10 tackles and one sack. Nayer had nine tackles and an interception, Gutierrez had eight tackles.

"It was a great effort by everyone," Loureiro said. "It's amazing, these kids continue to find a way to win games ... at times it seems as if we're destined to continue."